- Wednesday, 16 May 2012
- Written by Michael Allan (Glasgow Marxists)
Despite the very narrow victory of Boris Johnson over a divided Labour mayoral campaign that had been beset by internal squabbles from the very beginning, the overall picture was one of an electorate comprehensively rejecting the ConDems.
With a low turnout of 30-40%, it’s clear that many are not motivated enough by Labour’s austerity-lite programme to turn out in their droves to vote for the party. But the swing to Labour represents the more politically advanced layers of workers turning toward the mass party of their class in a bid to get rid of the Coalition parties. This comes after the largest TUC-called demonstration in March of last year – with nearly a million on the streets of London protesting against the agenda of austerity – as well as mass strike action in November, with the highest number of workers out on strike in Britain in a single day since the revolutionary turmoil of the 1926 General Strike. This had massive solidarity demos of support across the UK, with polls showing that 60% of the population and 80% of 18-24 year olds supported the strike.
It is clear then that there is a deep anger at the failures of the market and a greater level of class consciousness than there was before. This represents a turn in the situation from even two or three years ago, when the shock of the crisis had only just hit home. However, despite this change in consciousness, the Labour Party leadership has lagged well behind, with the initial token opposition to cuts earlier in Miliband’s leadership giving way to a capitulation by the Labour frontbench earlier this year when both Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls stated that they would not reverse the Coalition cuts if elected, as well as utopian nonsense about providing more public services for less money.
It is in this context that Labour have found themselves with a majority of seats in many councils up and down Britain after the local elections early in May but without the will in the leadership of the party to use that power to resist the Coalition. In some areas they have not been able to win a majority, and in these areas the question of whether or not to engage in the inevitable post-election horse trading to find coalition partners has arisen.
In Aberdeen City Council, Labour came out as the largest party in what was formerly a Lib Dem stronghold yet have opted to go into coalition with…the Conservatives. In Stirling the same agreement was reached. In Fife – formerly a mining area with a long history of industrial militancy, where strong working class traditions persist – Labour has agreed to govern as a minority administration with Conservative support. It seems unthinkable that after an election where many turned out to vote Labour with the intention of getting rid of the Tories and Lib Dems that Labour should then invite the Tories to power through the back door. This is a betrayal of those voters. But it also represents a crippling of Labour’s ability to resist ConDem attacks – after all, they will be in coalition with one the parties that will be loyally implementing those cuts.
We need not look far back into history to see examples of this – the same is happening right now to the various centre-left parties of government in Europe. In Ireland, Labour has been a coalition partner to the right-wing Fine Gael and, with nought but lip-service paid to Labour policies, has been forced to carry through massive cuts. In Greece, PASOK was forced to push through various austerity measures despite winning a large percentage of the vote in 2009 and ended up being unceremoniously thumped at the Greek general election this year after entering into coalition with right wing parties, dropping from 43% to 13% of the vote. On that occasion, all the parties of the left that stood on a no-cuts platform made massive gains, having around 30% of the Greek vote between them, with left coalition Syriza coming second. If another election were to be held in Greece – and, at the time of writing, this is almost a foregone conclusion as there can be no coalition formed by any of the parties – Syriza would stand to win around 28% of the vote, making them the largest party. These examples should serve as lessons to Labour.
In Labour’s own past, there have been examples of Labour councils giving a fighting lead that has bolstered the working class movement and helped aid their struggle. In Poplar after the First World War the Labour council set budgets that saw greater provision for the poor, equal pay for men and women and a minimum wage. The rise in local rates proposed by government was rejected by the authority in 1921, going against their own party’s leadership and a government in the process. The large mobilisation of workers in support of these measures served as inspiration for several other Labour councils during the turbulent 1920s carrying out similar policies in what became known as ‘Poplarism’.
Likewise in Liverpool in the 1980s, the city council rejected central government cuts, instead demolishing slum housing and carrying out the largest programme of social home building in the city’s history. Liverpool’s stand was one of the great images of working class struggle against the Thatcher government in the 1980s along with the Miners’ Strike and the movement against the Poll Tax. Liverpool proved such a difficult nut to crack for the supposedly mighty Thatcher that she had to leave the city council alone only until the heroic struggle of the miners had been defeated.
The weaknesses of both Poplar and Liverpool were that they were among the few Labour-controlled councils to stand up and fight, with attacks from the right wing of their own party and the fact few other councils were doing leaving them isolated and so allowing them to eventually be defeated, but only after great effort. The fact that Labour’s share of the vote in Liverpool increased substantially during the 1980s at a time when Labour was repeatedly pummelled nationally is testament to the way that such policies helped rally workers to vote for the party as well as bolstering their sense of strength in their class.
In the present circumstances we need Labour councils across Britain to step up and do the same, but this time united resolute so as to prevent the same defeats of the past. Despite the scale of the cuts already implemented in their 2 years of power – with all areas of the public sector feeling significant strain – only 12% of the ConDems’ planned cuts have been implemented. Much, much more is to come, and with sub-par economic performance – the weakest ‘recovery’ from an economic crash in Britain in over 180 years – the demand for cuts from the markets after 2015 will not lessen. This means that if Labour form the next government – and it is very likely Labour will be elected in 2015 on the back of massive revulsion from the British public toward the Tories and their Lib Dem allies – the pressure will be on them to implement cuts on a similar scale.
With this in mind we must therefore call upon Labour councils up and down the UK to reject the cuts that are demanded of them and provide a fighting lead. Although the economic powers councils possess are limited, Labour was not elected to simply pass on Tory cuts at a local level but to fight against them and this is what they must do. During the 1980s the term ‘dented shield’ was used by Labour councils to describe the policy of accepting some cuts at local level. This is identical to Labour’s logic today of ‘kinder cuts’ or ‘slower and faster’ cuts that is used to differentiate their almost identical economic policy from that of the Tory-led government. However, a cut to essential public services cannot be ‘kind’ and if the history of Labour in the 1980s has shown us anything is that little cuts here and there to begin with give way to further capitulations later on. Given the extent of the economic crisis, this will be the case once more but on a much more severe scale. Giving way here and there will simply show weakness and give courage to the government to demand even greater sacrifices.Therefore where Labour has majority administrations it should reject these measures and propose alternate budges that are to the benefit of working class people. Where Labour do not have a majority of seats they should at very least try and govern as a minority but without making concessions to either the Con-Dems nor the SNP in the case of Scotland, as to do so represents a compromising of the labour movement’s position. In either case, Labour must use the powers that it has on councils to put forward a needs-based budget – of holding down the regressive council tax, of providing a ‘living wage’, of rejecting council staff redundancies, of greater provision and building of social housing and of improved local services such as education. In the coming period our Labour councils must not bow down but instead stand up and fight!